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Being a Chinese descendant living in South East Asia, China as a nation has always fascinated me. Even though I feel I have been assimilated into the local culture of my country, I still feel a special bond with China which in my opinion is also shared by a great number of other overseas Chinese. Conscious of this special feeling, I have wondered how the Chinese came to have a common identity and to think of themselves as one people, one race and one culture.
To satisfy my curiosity, I am taking the East Asia Civilization course and indeed it has given me a deeper understanding and appreciation for my roots and culture. I am greatly interested in everything that class has taught me, but nothing stirs as much passion in me as the part about Western dominance over China and the Chinese struggle to form a modern nation. It was the period of her greatest humiliation and her reborn as a nationalistic nation, more conscious of her identity in the world than any other periods in her long history.
From the ancient times to the present, Chinese have always called their country Zhong Guo or The Middle Kingdom. This reflected their thinking of China as the sole civilization unequaled by any other country in the world with China in the middle and everything else on the fringe of her border. Towards the nineteenth century, China regarded all the people that did not follow her culture as barbarians and they were treated with contempt.
Before the emergence of the West as the world superpower, China had every right to regard herself as the celestial empire with the Son of Heaven as the ruler of mankind. Isolated from the other major civilizations by the natural barriers such as the mountain ranges, deserts and oceans, China had indigenously developed her culture without much borrowing from others, and therefore traditionally had considered herself as the world and the way.
This feeling of superiority was so ingrained that when she was confronted with the west, she had difficulty in understanding the current world situation of that time when the west was not as barbaric as she thought it to be. After a series of humiliating defeats by the west and being subjugated to a semi-colonial status, it took no great imagination to know that there would be a profound change to the very fabric of the Chinese culture, society, institutions and so on.
The change was slow at first but as the Chinese became more disillusioned with their culture, it grew into a blatant revolt against their culture and traditions. Though China had known the west or at least had an inkling of western civilization even before the Yuan Dynasty, it was only after the foreigners began to sell opium, to the great detriment of China, that it began to appear in the Chinese consciousness. Great amounts of silver were being drained out of the country by the opium trade and this caused money shortage in China.
As a result, the court was alerted and an imperial edict was issued to ban the import of opium. Needless to say, the opium trade continued as usual at the port of Canton until the arrival of Lin Zexu, the imperial commissioner tasked with the abolition of the opium smuggling. His heavy-handedness in dealing with the foreign merchants exacerbated the tension between the west and China. Britain soon declared war on China under the pretext that the Chinese authority had dealt unfairly to their merchants.
Though Lin was an able man, his army was of no match to the very small but better trained and equipped British army. The British blockaded Canton and captured Chusan and Dinghai. The empire’s attempt of resistance was futile and as the war spread north, Zexu was disgraced and exiled to Sinkiang. Though he failed in his mission, he was convinced of the superiority of the western military technology and method of warfare. He believed the Chinese army should be modernized if China wanted to protect herself from the onslaught of the west.
Even so, he did not dare to voice out his opinion, and “the lesson he had learnt in Canton remained largely his own”de Bary. Lin Zexu was therefore perhaps the earliest Chinese who recognized change was needed, but as he did not have any real influence to the court after the Opium War, he could no do much to realize his conviction. A few years after the Opium war, the Taiping Rebellion broke out. The Taipings had occupied most of southern China before they were defeated by able commanders of Han origin like Zeng Guofan, Zuo Zongtang and Li Hongzhang.
The rebellion had caused widespread sufferings to the people and great damage to the agrarian economy but it propelled those Han commanders to position of importance with direct control of their own army and thus weakened the power of the central authority considerably. Those men were staunch Confucians and though they had the means to overthrow the dynasty, they were more interested in garnering awards from the emperor.
They were also moderate reformists who adopted western guns and ships to fight the Taipings and encouraged modernization projects to consolidate their military position in their region. Their reforms, however were doomed to fail partly because of the superstitious nature of the locals who were against changing the landscape by building through the land a railway or telegraph line which they believed would be bad for the Feng Shui.
Another reason was that their reforms were mostly regional in character and did not have the endorsement from the central authority. As a result, their reforms did not spill to other parts of China and never became a nation wide reform. Together with intellectuals like Feng Guifen, Zhang Zhidong and Xue Fucheng, they formed the core for the Self-Strenghtening Movement and what they advocated can be best summed up by Zhang’s catch-phrase “Chinese learning for substance, Western learning for function”.
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